Is Social Media the “New Socialism?”

a-world-soc-mediaIn 1516, Thomas Moore authored Utopia, the story of an ideal society, based on an imaginary island. He was beheaded in 1535 when he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. During the last decade, Moore became a saint, and was previously canonized by the Catholic Church. Since Moore’s Utopia, there have been many other examples of socialism, in dreams and in practice. And today, a new form of socialism is emerging. Social Media.

Social Media is not your father’s socialism, however. Whereas socialism traditionally is about centralized authority, property owned in common, Government controlled information, and limited resources made available by the State, social media is quite the opposite: Shared use, but with protection via Creative Commons licensing, unlimited resources (cloud computing), real-time opinions, and real-time worldwide sharing of ideas, ideals, and communication.

Today, the Internet is generating a new form of social collaboration. You can find anything on the web, you can speak to everyone instantly via Twitter, tell everyone what you’re reading using StumbleUpon, share your finances with Wesabe, and create a worldwide movie premiere with YouTube and similar services.

Today, in the world of technology, it is the collective that is the driving force of change. It has been written that more than 60,000 man-years of work were poured into the latest release of Fedora Linux. More than 10 million registered users contribute to Wikipedia. 350 million people watch YouTube videos every month and the number climbs continually. There are more than 3 billion photos and videos on Flickr. These people are all living in a socialized environment. It is a game-changing influence on our culture. And nobody, least of all your father, can stop it.

Like traditional political socialism, people not involved in this culture shift are afraid of it. “Twitter makes no sense,” says one fifty-something to me when asked about it. “YouTube is for kids with no life,” another Gen Xer scoffs. But social media is not just for kids. It’s for anyone and everyone who wishes to engage the world – and to make their life, their loves, their business better.

The recent elections in Iran have created a remarkable research opportunity for anyone interested in social media. At first, the idea that despite barring the media from protests, the thrust behind the protests and publicity involved with the disputed elections was driven by social media tools, notably Twitter. A closer look reveals some bias: President Ahmedinejad’s supporters are known to lead rural lifestyles, have less access to wealth, are less educated and more likely to speak Farsi than Mousavi’s supporters. As such, does this mean that a picture of the protests via social media overstates Mousavi support or understates Ahmedinejad support?

The same issue relates to the blogosphere.  Nearly all blog posts are written in Farsi. Many of those that are not are in English. Does this type of access create a political barrier to true collaboration and freedom of speech? Overall, the use of these tools, including Twitter are making a difference. The Iranian Government has shut down cell towers, closed Internet cafes and demonstrates an ability to control the Internet, but only within its borders, and likely only for a limited time. In Iran, social media is creating change – Anne-Marie Corley wrote a powerful article about this in the MIT Technology Review. Read it.

Certainly, one could argue that the concept of collective development and distribution at little or no cost might destroy Capitalism. The current banking and economic woes of the United States and in fact the world show evidence that such is not likely the case, although there are plenty of people making “socialism” accusations at the current political power base in Washington DC. But the U.S, and the world are essentially market-driven societies. When a problem or question is thrown into the marketplace, the market typically responds – yes or no – and the question is solved. The prosperity that America so enjoyed for the past few decades was created by the use of market forces overcoming social problems.

Today, it’s clear that social media can play an increasingly important role in our mainstream society. From emergency services to personal sharing of ideas, fears, and opinions, these tools are bringing millions of people together in search of common answers. Revolutions have been started with far fewer numbers than that.

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